Social Mobility in Old Times and New
Today in American society, there is an obvious divide in wealth. Although we Americans are not tied to the lower, middle, or upper class that we are born into, like the caste system, it is still something that can drag you down or lift you up regardless of your abilities. America is the land of opportunity, flowing with milk and honey, right? Not according to Business Insider, which states that social class is much less mobile than we like to think. If you were born in the bottom 20%, you have a 5% chance of moving to the top, which is worse than many countries. This class change seems tough, but possible. What was it like during Roman times? Was changing social class even a distant reality?
As far as holding office goes, partly. Although it was not usual for a plebian to hold higher office, some moved through the ranks as a result of a good term as tribune, which was an office that only plebians could hold. Tribunes helped protect the plebians from arbitrary actions of the senate, and they were even viewed as sacred.
Freedmen were often satirized because of their wealth and poor taste. It took American freedmen a very long time before they could achieve similar social status, and this was after every single slave was freed. Freedmen were viewed as noveau-riche, uneducated and flamboyant with their wealth. The sheer fact that they could and very often did acquire wealth though lends credence to the fact that Roman society was more mobile than ours. The emperor’s freedmen instantly became important because of all the dirt they had on the empire. All this shows that slaves were more socially mobile than one would think.
What about the poor, non-slave Romans? Unless you were a citizen, you could not climb the rungs of the social ladder. Luckily, citizenship was fairly easy to attain. The poor could attain indirect access to power and authority through patronage, but few did. Even if the poor did amass wealth, they were looked down upon and not allowed to participate in high office. It seems that if one went from rags to riches that the rags would always be visible.
All in all, it seems that many kinds of Romans, slaves and poor, could eventually acquire wealth, but your status would stick to you your entire life. Wealth for the average roman was a possibility, much like America, but class seems to have transcended wealth. Here in America, there is no real connection between political offices and the upper class. In fact, they seem to be at odds with each other much of the time. The equestrians to me are comparable to the Kennedys. A poor roman could acquire wealth, but never hold the political influence that a member of the Kennedy family could. Is this okay? Is it wrong that the Romans and us Americans cannot enter these seemingly royal families? For the average citizen, nobody really cares. As long as an American/Roman can move from poverty to a happy, well-fed family, life will be good. Is it really so wrong that although it may be hard to move to the high upper class, a move from lower to middle is totally possible? For me that is the true American dream. Not characterized by opulence of an emperor, but contentment in a nice home with a nice lawn and food for your children.
business insider came up on google for social mobility. It is a trusted news source for things like social mobility and economic questions.
this came up on dogpile under cursus honorum. Vroma is a widely used database and should be trusted.
Jstor came up on google under poor roman social mobility. Jstor is THE name in scholarly articles and can always be trusted as a good source.
BBC came up under googling social mobility in rome, and it is a respected news source. It was written by a professor at a British College.